Tuesday, January 25, 2011

ZipZip, Pillowman, and a Shower Full of Poo

I thought I’d tell you about a week I spent as a volunteer maintenance guy at a summer church camp near Culpepper, Virginia a few years ago. Even though my job was to simply empty trash containers, clean some bathrooms, and fill some water containers, it wasn’t as mundane as you might think. Just go to bed and try to get some sleep, and the action began.

The deal was that my friend Steve and I would join a couple of other guys as the maintenance men, and all of us guys would share a tent cabin with some other guys who were volunteering at the camp in other functions. The tent also housed two or three teen boys who were actually working there during the summer. They had weekends off, so when we arrived on Saturday, they were no where to be found.

Yes. Teen boys. Teen boys without their mothers to make sure they picked up after themselves.

We walked into our tent cabin the first night and found their stuff strewn everywhere. Every bunk (twelve in all) was covered in various and sundry items: dirty clothes, towels, blankets, books, etc, etc. We couldn’t tell which bunks were taken and which ones were open. Okay. They’re boys, and we’re men. Executive decision time. We piled all their stuff on the floor in the middle of the tent, and took the bunks we wanted. Sunday night comes, and they show up.

“Hey, that’s my bunk!”

“Really? We couldn’t tell. I guess you’ll have to pick a new one.”

What was unspoken was: We’re older and bigger than you. Get over it.

The concept of the week was simple and pleasant enough. Sure, there was a little nasty work during the day, but there’s no pressure, lots of hangin’ out with my friends, and then I got to sleep out in the woods every night for a week. And, well, for the most part, that’s exactly how it worked out. The problem wasn’t the days. They went just as expected. It was the nights. Starting with that first night, I did not have one uneventful, restful night ALL WEEK! Here are some of the adventures.

On the first night after the teens returned, there was the “screaming girl” out in the woods. We had not settled down for long, maybe a half an hour, when someone came to the tent to claim that they had heard a girl screaming out in the woods. Someone needed to go check it out! This someone happened to be a teen junior counselor boy, and guess who went running off with him to look for the girl in peril….yep….that’s right….the teen boys in our cabin. Turned out, of course, to be nothing. Probably two cats making kittens.

On every night, there was the guy I’ll call ZipZip. He was the assistant in the kitchen area, so he was the first out the door in the morning, and the last one in at night. Under his bunk he kept a huge suitcase with about a million and one zippers. He would come in after we had all settled down and had just gotten to sleep, and he would pull out that suitcase and begin to unzip and rezip every single zipper on that case. Zip, zip, zip, zip, zip, zip….and on it would go, and go, and go, and go, until finally he would settle down and go to bed only to repeat the process early in the morning before the rest of us needed to be up. In between, he continued the Zzzzzzs with one of the worst cases of snoring any of us had ever heard.

ZipZip’s snoring leads me to Pillowman. Now, Pillowman was a good enough guy, but he had a few quirks. First, he brought his dog with him, which seems nice until you realize that this was a camp full of little kids, and the only one that Pillowman’s dog was friendly with was Pillowman. As a result, he kept his dog tied up near his truck the whole week. Of course he visited the dog regularly, kept it fed and watered, and walked it when he could, and all was well…until the night of the July 4th fireworks, when the dog got so worked up that he snapped his line and fled into the woods. Pillowman was an emotional wreck. He was sure that someone had let the dog go as a prank. He searched and searched and searched. To everyone’s relief, the dog was found the next morning out in the woods with his broken line tangled up in some brush.

So, how does ZipZip’s snoring bring me to Pillowman, you might be wondering. Well, ZipZip’s snoring head was positioned within a few feet of Pillowman’s bunk, and after all the zipping followed by the snoring, sometime toward the middle to end of our time together…in the middle of the night…Pillowman had had all the zipping and snoring he could take, and he slammed his pillow into ZipZip’s head. Let’s just say that ole Zipper wasn’t too thrilled about that. Words ensued. Threats were issued. All were awakened. But, alas, no blood was shed, and no blows were thrown. Eventually, everything settled down and we all went back to our shortened night of sleep.

On my very last night there, I thought that surely I could get a good night’s sleep. Everyone was tired, so there wasn’t much energy for horseplay. Even ZipZip settled down quickly. I went right to sleep.

“Hello? Anybody awake in there? Hello? Can one of you help me out? Please? Hello?”

I’m just a volunteer. Surely, one of the paid staff guys will respond. I really need the sleep. I’ve got a long drive the next day. Just wait a minute. One of them will answer her.

“Hello? I need some help. Anybody awake?”

Oh, okay. I guess it’s me. I go outside, and here is a female counselor on the guy’s side of the lake looking for help from one of the maintenance crew at midnight on the last night. Why? Because she had a little girl who had an accident, and instead of taking her to the bathroom to clean her up as would be appropriate, she had the bright idea of decoupling a quick connect coupler on a hose that stretched out to the beach area. Now, water was flowing freely out into the grass, and she couldn’t stop it. So, while the paid guys slept, I made my way around the lake in the dark and fixed the problem in the middle of the night.

But, that’s not even the scene stealer for the week. That came on the next to last night. You see, as I mentioned, it was my job to clean one of the shower houses everyday. My friend, Steve helped me, and we did that chore every afternoon. When evening came, all the campers headed to bed at 10pm, and then it was my chance to get a shower. My day was done. I was sticky. I was sweaty. A shower made me feel all better. Thursday night was no different. Around 10:30pm, I headed to the shower house. When I walked in, it smelled kind of bad, but there were toilets in there, and I figured that nature had called on someone, and they had answered. It would clear up in a minute. I took a nice hot shower. Ahhhhhhh! Clean again. Fresh. A wonderful feeling.

“Oh, dude! Someone’s really made a mess in that shower stall!”

It was one of the counselor’s. He pointed. He remarked. He darted for the door.

The smell was still there.

One thing to keep in mind with this story is that the camp had kids from all walks of life, and a great many of them were from places like inner city Philadelphia. A large number of them had never been in the woods and away from home in their lives.

I peeked into the stall. It was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I hope I never do again! There was poo on every surface. It was on all of the walls. It was on the fixtures. It was on the shower curtain. It was in lumps on the floor and clogging the drain. It was absolutely disgusting.

I’m a volunteer, I said to myself. I already cleaned this shower house today. This is too much. I need help. Where’d that guy go that pointed it out? All of the sudden, the camp was as quiet as a snowy Christmas morning. It was just me and the poop.

There was nothing else to do. Oh, I guess I could have gone and got those paid staff, goofy, teen boys out of bed and made them clean it up. But, this was my shower house. I was a maintenance guy. I knew the location of all the tools and supplies. It was my responsibility. A half hour later, after much internal self-reflection, and outward nose-holding and gagging, the shower house was again clean and smelling fresh.

The next day, I told some of my fellow staff members of the poo adventure, and there were calls for searching out the culprit! Who would have done such a thing! He must be found and hung from a tree! Well, I guess they didn’t actually call for his death, but severe humiliation was on the agenda.

No, I said. It was probably some boy from the city, scared of the woods, who had been holding it in all week. Finally, his counselor made him go take a shower, and when the hot water hit him….well…..pow! He’s probably embarrassed enough. I told them to drop it.

Here’s the thing. I was there to help. I had volunteered to work to the benefit of the kids at the camp. No where did I sign an agreement that put a limitation on my service. Sometimes folks, selfless service means just that…you are called to be selfless and clean up the poo.

By the way, that was my last year as a volunteer maintenance guy.


  1. Mike there's so much wisdom in this article. You always had that servant's heart and such a sense of responibility. You showed a lot of grace to whoever made the mess. Smearing fecal matter can be a sign of serious emotional problems and your choices didn't add to that. BTW I think I married ZipZip...or, most likely a guy with the same suitcase habits. I notice that every time we travel. So far, the pillowsmash hasn't served as an effective deterrent....

  2. This brings back many fond memories of church camp for me, both as a camper and a counselor. You just can't make up stuff like that!